Virgil Abloh is one of the most influential people of this generation. He is mainly known as the founder of Off-White, but he has also founded, worked for, and collaborated with other brands. Additionally, he has created his own art and helped musicians on their creative direction, as well as making his own music. Virgil Abloh did a lot in his life, but this article briefly examines some key points in his career and how a man from Chicago took over the fashion, music, and art worlds.
Before Off-White – Been Trill and Pyrex Vision
Been Trill is a men’s streetwear brand created by Virgil Abloh, along with Matthew Williams, Heron Preston, Justin Saunders, and YWP in 2012. Originally, Been Trill was not meant to be a streetwear brand but a DJ collective. The founders would post mixtapes, music videos, and images onto their Tumblr page and soon started making clothing. The clothes were graphic tees with giant hashtags and “Been Trill” written on them in a drip font. Their designs became recognizable and attracted the attention of celebrities such as Kanye West, A$AP Rocky, Drake, Big Sean, and Rihanna. They started wearing Been Trill, which led to the brand being hyped on social media. Been Trill also collaborated with other streetwear brands such as Hood By Air, Stüssy, and Diamond Supply. Been Trill also had a pop-up retail space on Canal Street in New York. Although Been Trill was peaking in 2013 and continued to do well, its existence was short-lived. The brand was sold to PacSun in 2015 and eventually faded from the spotlight.
Also in 2012, Virgil Abloh founded his first official company, Pyrex Vision, in New York City. The name came directly from the song “Dipset Anthem” by The Diplomats (ft. Cam’Ron and Juelz Santana), specifically Santana’s rap verse, “Back to the kitchen, that pyrex vision.” Abloh was also inspired by Pusha T’s rap in the song “Mr. Me Too” where he raps, “Pyrex stir turn into Cavalli furs.” With Pyrex Vision, Virgil Abloh took already branded clothing, modified them, and then sold them for hundreds of dollars. For example, he took discontinued Ralph Lauren flannels, printed “PYREX 23” on the backs, and sold them for $500+. His thought process behind this design was to make the flannels like a uniform where everyone feels like part of a team. He chose the number “23” because as a Chicagoan, his childhood hero was Michael Jordan. Another piece along the lines of a uniform was Champion mesh shorts with “PYREX” across the front. He chose Champion because his gym uniforms back when he was in school were Champion. Despite the criticism Pyrex Vision received for its practices, the streetwear brand became one of the most coveted on the market. Sadly, its shelf-life was shorter than Been Trill’s, and the brand disappeared after a year.
Why did Been Trill and Pyrex Vision disappear, even though they were doing well?
It seems that in the launching of Been Trill and Pyrex Vision, Virgil Abloh didn’t intend for them to become as big as they did and wanted to stop them before they started. This helps explain why the founders sold Been Trill to PacSun. As for Pyrex Vision, Abloh pulled the plug on the brand because it was more of an “artistic experiment” for him. He said it was meant to only be a 10-minute film featuring the work of Jim Joe and some shirts Abloh had made featuring the word "Pyrex". He wanted the Pyrex clothes to be a commentary on the power of youth and their relationship with streetwear, which makes sense with the gym uniform and team concept. Although it wasn’t Abloh’s intention for his earlier fashion brands to be big, Been Trill and Pyrex Vision influenced what would become his most famous work, Off-White.
Virgil Abloh founded Off-White as an Italian luxury fashion label based in Milan. The label is very reminiscent of Been Trill and Pyrex Vision because it has similar designs to its formers, and its pieces are also sold at expensive prices. Some of their most popular pieces are the Classic Industrial Belt, their hoodies with either the parallel diagonal lines or four arrows, and the Jordan 1 Retro High Chicago sneakers. The latter have shoelaces that say “SHOELACES” in quotation marks on them. A lot of other Off-White pieces are in that same realm with the item having what it is written out on it in quotation marks. According to Abloh, the quotation marks and irony of the pieces are used to convey detachment from society and social norms. People don’t expect a little black dress to say “LITTLE BLACK DRESS” on it and be sold for hundreds of dollars, but Off-White does exactly that and people love it. Off-White was ranked as the hottest label in the world, surpassing Gucci, by the end of 2018, and is still considered one of the most popular brands in the world today.
Streetwear or Luxury Designer? Both.
Virgil Abloh’s reasoning behind why he wanted Off-White to be a luxury brand was because he didn’t want Off-White to be labeled as one or the other: “just streetwear” or “just luxury designer.” That is why the brand’s name is Off-White because the color off-white is the gray area between black and white. To him, Been Trill and Pyrex Vision were just streetwear, even though they were sold at expensive prices. His vision for Off-White was different. Abloh wanted to bridge the gap between the two labels because, at the time, streetwear brands and luxury designer brands were seen as two things that were fundamentally different. Streetwear was seen as cheap, while designer was seen as expensive. Abloh didn’t want to accept that his brand had to be one thing and said, “I was adamant: ‘This isn’t a streetwear brand. This isn’t a contemporary brand. This is designer, just the same way that X, Y, Z are designer, where you say their name and it carries this whole esteem and emotion to it.” Through Off-White, Virgil Abloh changed people’s views on streetwear, high-fashion, and luxury brands.
Becoming Artistic Director of Louis Vuitton
During Virgil Abloh’s early years creating clothes, he caught the attention of Louis Vuitton’s CEO, Michael Burke. Burke kept his eyes on Abloh until finally appointing him to be artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear ready wear line on March 25, 2018. Virgil Abloh became the first person of African descent to lead the brand's menswear line, as well as one of the few black designers to be the head of a major French fashion house. Having these titles also meant that Abloh was bringing change into Louis Vuitton and the fashion world, in general. A fashion house like Louis Vuitton has a lot of history behind it, and Abloh was able to bring his fresh, youth-driven perspective to the house. This is seen in his first show for Louis Vuitton at the 2018 Men’s Fashion Week at the Palais-Royal gardens in Paris, France.
Virgil Abloh’s First Louis Vuitton Show
Abloh’s show brought a bit of American culture to Paris by centering the theme around the 1939 musical film “The Wizard of Oz” and the American Dream. The runway was the rainbow road from the musical, and the people who walked on it were musicians like Playboi Carti, Steve Lacy, Sheck Wes, A$AP Nast, Kid Cudi, and Dev Hynes. Abloh also casted a diverse group of models to wear his clothes and invited Kanye West, Rihanna, A$AP Rocky, Bella Hadid, and thousands of art students to the show. As for the collection itself, the clothes were simple; the luggage was translucent; chunky chains accessorized a lot of pieces; and the Louis Vuitton monogram pattern was turned into a metallic silver. From the collection to the people at the show, Virgil Abloh was revamping the look of a Fashion Week show.
Louis Vuitton & Off-White Join Hands
Louis Vuitton really believed in Virgil Abloh. They showed this in July 2021 when the entire Louis Vuitton conglomerate, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, announced that they would be taking a 60% stake in Off-White. In return for taking a large stake in the company, Virgil Abloh was given greater creative control across the entire conglomerate. So not only was Abloh one of the few black designers to be the head of a major French fashion house, but he also had the whole Louis Vuitton corporation on his back.
Virgil Abloh has worked on many collaborations, but one of his notable ones was his “The Ten” collaboration with Nike. “The Ten” collection was released in 2017 and consisted of ten of Nike’s signature and new sneakers being re-designed by Virgil Abloh. The ten sneaker models were: the Air Jordan 1, Air Force 1, Air Presto, Air Max 90, Air Max 97, Blazer, Zoom Fly SP, Hyperdunk, VaporMax, and Converse Chuck Taylor. Abloh added zip ties, orange tabs, and quotations to the shoes making them very Off-White. Some of Abloh’s other Nike creations were the lifestyle sneakers he designed for tennis player Serena Williams, the 50 different colorways of the Nike Dunk, and his redesign of the Air Jordan 2 Low that featured faux crumbled midsoles. Some other designs that will be coming from Abloh and Nike in the future are the redesigned Air Force 1 Mid and Blazer Low, as well as a series of Louis Vuitton Air Force 1s.
Virgil Abloh in the Music Industry
In terms of music, Virgil Abloh famously worked with American rapper Kanye West. West appointed Abloh as the creative director of his creative agency DONDA, so Abloh art directed much of West’s discography. Abloh worked on 808s & Heartbreak, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Yeezus, and Cruel Summer. His most notable work was his design for the cover art of Watch the Throne, a collaborative album by Kanye West and Jay-Z. Abloh’s design got nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Recording Package. Abloh has also worked on the cover art for WZRD’s self-titled debut album, Pop Smoke’s Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon album, and for other artists like Lil Uzi Vert, Kid Cudi, and Westside Gunn.
Going back to Been Trill days, Abloh was also a DJ. He began DJing in his teens at house parties throughout high school and college. He released his first single in January 2018 with the song "Orvnge," which he worked on with German DJ/producer Boys Noize. He also had a DJ residency at Wynn Las Vegas's XS Nightclub and collaborated with Pioneer, a maker of DJ consoles, to design new models for them.
Virgil Abloh’s Art
Abloh also worked on art. He worked frequently with famous Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, whose also worked with Louis Vuitton (think the colorful monogram bags). Abloh and Murakami collaborated on a series of exhibitions at Gagosian Gallery's outposts in London, Paris, and Beverly Hills. They also had their art showcased together in both of their respective hometowns: The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and Murakami's shop Oz Zingaro in Tokyo. In addition, Murakami gave Abloh his own art show in his Kaikai Kiki art gallery in Tokyo, Japan.
A lot of Abloh’s solo work was exhibited in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. His first exhibit was opened on June 10, 2019. It was called “Figures of Speech” and included an image of fellow Chicagoan Chief Keef in a Supreme T-shirt with the logo in the colors of the Pan-African flag, samples of his sneaker designs for Nike, his album cover work for Yeezus, and more. His exhibit combined his work in fashion and music into a place of art. The exhibit traveled to other museums like the High Museum of Art, the Insitute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the Brooklyn Museum, and Qatar Museums.
It’s fascinating and impressive that Virgil Abloh, a man who had no formal training in fashion, music, and art, was able to accomplish as much as he did in his life. Abloh shows people, especially the youth, that you can make your own path and walk on your own rainbow road. Some may say he is the [insert name here] of this generation, but Virgil Abloh is the Virgil Abloh of this generation and every generation moving forward.